‘Blue Ruin’ Star Macon Blair On Directing His First Movie For Netflix And Being ‘Festival Famous’

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Until recently, Macon Blair has been best known as a frequent collaborator with childhood friend Jeremy Saulnier, who directed Blair in Blue Ruin and Green Room. Both films became festival darlings, due in part to their visceral non-festivalness. (A friend here at Sundance recently told me that after a week of festival movies, he’s going to binge on Vin Diesel movies.) But they also a lot to winning performances by Blair, who even garnered a few acting award nominations along the way (probably not as many as he deserved). This year, Blair is striking out on his own, in Park City this week for the premiere of I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, a movie he wrote and directed.

The film stars Melanie Lynskey (Togetherness, Away We Go, etc) as Ruth, a depressed woman beaten down by the many mini-tragedies of modern living, mostly that the world seems to be full of assholes. One day her house gets burglarized, and the thief gets away with all her electronics as well as a box of trinkets from her grandmother, items with little monetary value but much sentimental value. Upon realizing that the police force is full of, you guessed it, more assholes, she strikes out on a mission to find her stuff, enlisting her eccentric neighbor, Tony, played by Elijah Wood, whom she met when his dog shit on her lawn and who has a fine collection of nunchucks and ninja stars.

At Home shares, as you might imagine, some similarities with Jeremy Saulnier’s films, on which Blair served as a close collaborator. Like Green Room and Blue Ruin, but even more so, At Home seems almost actively hostile to the idea of genre, shifting from indie comedy to dark comedy to thriller from scene to scene. One minute we’re meeting a quirky cop or a loopy trophy wife, the next someone’s dying graphically in a hail of bullets. At Home combines both gore and shit jokes. Ruth and Tony’s search for her stolen stuff, which feels a little mumblecore — quirky characters, wry observations, naturalistic dynamic — eventually brings them up against a cultish gang of crackheads. David Yow of The Jesus Lizard plays the leader, commanding a sociopathic twink (Devon Graye) and a Squeaky Fromme-esque fanatic (Jane Levy). Their world is dark and lurid, but also occasionally comedic.

At Home is much more a comedy with a theme (why are people such assholes?) starring a protagonist given to existential pondering (does any of this matter?) than Saulnier’s strictly plot-driven affairs, but it also descends into some of the same goose chases (and violence and gore). The tone shifts are certainly jarring, where you’re trying to reconcile mumblecore with Scooby Doo crime solving, drug addiction and murder. At some level this feels like Blair trying to entertain himself — and I always enjoy a filmmaker who can make me feel his glee vicariously even if I’m not entirely invested in the reality of a scene (Shane Black and Niall Blomkamp are two other directors that come to mind). But at another level, the tone shifts seem to have a specific purpose, which is why I think At Home ultimately works despite being a little disjointed and goofy as hell (and having minor characters who are frequently two degrees too quirky, which I think is kind of an actors-directing thing).

Normally when a protagonist wonders what it all means, we’re asked to navel gaze with them. At Home seems to say “This is what you’re worried about? I’ll give you something to worry about.”

It’s a fun twist. And Netflix, where At Home is scheduled to premiere February 24th, seems like the perfect place for it. Where it doesn’t have to fit into a proscribed box for marketing purposes in the hopes of a huge opening weekend, and where people can, as Blair puts it, “discover it on their own time.”

I sat down with Blair (who I’d met a few years back on a shotgun trip at Fantastic Fest — Keanu Reeves was also there, name drop name drop — and who I’ve spoken to a few times) this week from Sundance, where we talked about his transition into full-time film employment, directing his first film, and being festival famous.

So, “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore.” Are you trying to…

F*ck up the Twitter reviews because it uses up all the captions?

Like, it either has to be “good” or “bad.” That’s all anyone’s going to have room for in the headline. Were you trying to make us take a stand because that’s all we can fit in?

It’s just, I don’t know, I get stubborn in my brain. I was listening to a song that had that title in it when I was writing the movie, then it just sort of became the title in my head. Everybody said, “That title is ridiculous. It’s too long. It’s crazy.” I said, “Okay.” And we tried to find other titles, but they all just- they felt like they stunk. And so at the end, finally, it was like, “I want that to be the title.” And so I’ll own the goofiness of it.

“Macon Blair is an enemy of SEO.”

That has to be the number one bullet point. With some thumbs down emojis on either side.

This movie feels like it’s actively trying to change genres from scene to scene. Was that a conscious effort?

Not consciously, but I think I enjoy weird shifts like that. A lot of people don’t. We did some test screenings and people did feel like it was jarring — especially when it’s sort of like you’ve got the Ruth and Tony characters and they’re in melancholy indie world and then there’s another set of characters in weirdo crackhead world. We did try to be open to those kinds of criticisms and try to smooth the jumps between those two worlds as much as possible, but it was always going to be a little whiplash-y. It’s sort of like, she can be kind of sad and mopey one minute and then she gets her finger broken the next. It’s just amusing to me.

I think the fact that you’re plainly trying to amuse yourself comes through and I think that’s an important element in this kind of movie.

I mean, there was a lot of stuff that sometimes people were arguing that we should lose this, or lose that. And I would lose it and it wouldn’t be better or worse, but I would just miss it. I’d be like, “I kind of want to put the dog shit back in.” “Well, do you need it?” Well, technically no, but…

Do you think this would have been different if it wasn’t going to Netflix, if you were having to go through a different process? Do you think you would have been forced to lose more things or to streamline it?

I have to assume so, I know at a minimum the casting would have been different. Because Melanie [Lynskey] is awesome but I don’t think she’s on the lists of certain financiers as someone who can be the main character in a movie. It’s not a matter of good acting or bad acting, I think it’s just some sort of famous-ness quotient.

She seems like an actress who has face recognition but not necessarily name recognition.

That’s a good way to put it. But then, among people that pay attention to movies, she’s so well-respected, it just blows my mind that she’s the best of her generation, she should be a huge star, and so I was like, “Well, I want to give her a lead role, by God.” There were a lot of hoops to be jumped through when we were trying to develop it, but as I said, when we got into bed with Netflix, they were just like, “Who do you want?” And I was like, “Melanie, and Elijah Wood.” And they were like, “Cool.” And I was like, “And also the guy from the The Jesus Lizard, for the bad guy.” And they were like, “Cool.” And I was like, “Oh, shit.”

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Do you think this movie’s especially suited to Netflix? Do you think there’s a difference between a movie that’s going to Netflix and one that’s going to have a theatrical release?

I think this one is definitely suited to Netflix. I feel like if we were depending on this being a big splash on an opening weekend, we’d be in serious trouble. Something like this, I feel like it can kind of get out there and, if it’s going to do anything, I feel like it’s going to be more based on word-of-mouth. I like the idea that it can kind of exist on Netflix indefinitely and people can discover it on their own time. They have such a wide variety of stuff, I don’t know what a typical Netflix movie might be. But I know for this one, I’m glad it ended up there because I feel like if it was going to have a theatrical run, I don’t think anyone would see it.

You’ve been a big part, arguably the best part, of Jeremy Saulnier’s movies, acting-wise. Why didn’t you write yourself a bigger part for this?

Well, before Film Science had said, “Let’s look at what you want to direct,” but I didn’t want to take that for granted, so I had sort of a Plan B in my mind where if nobody was going to get behind this, that maybe I’ll try and do it for $200,000 and try to follow Jeremy’s model that he did on Blue Ruin and try and do it like that. In that version, I was going to play Tony because I could work for free.

Elijah Wood’s character?

Yeah, exactly, and when they got on board and it became a more legitimate movie with some actual structure to it, then it became about real actors and he was always the first choice. But I think it was mainly that I just assumed I would be terrified at every moment and overwhelmed by the decision-making process and having to learn lines and stuff and deliver a performance — surely something would have had to give in there.

As an actor, did you feel pressure to create your own material? To create more work for yourself as opposed to relying on someone to cast you?

Yeah, for sure. I’m trying to figure out something right now that I can write that someone else can make so that I can play it, because I am lucky that I get occasional jobs here and there, but it’s not consistent enough to support the family, so I do screenwriting stuff here and there and it’s sort of a jumble of things to make the bills work. But I definitely think that if I wait around for a big break, it’s never going to come.

Did you grow up acting?

Jeremy and I grew up together with a group of kids in our neighborhood and everybody traded hats – somebody would be filming with the video and camera and everybody else would act and then everybody did a little bit of everything. [switching to a deliberately dorky-sounding voice] And then I was also in the drama club at school and I did the plays. I got the Best Supporting Actor award for playing Two-Bit in The Outsiders in 1992. So me and Emilio Estevez… That sort of thing. I think that’s what I was always trying to do but also not putting all the eggs in that basket because I really liked writing, too, and so I felt like if I could sort of have two things going, whichever one would materialize at the moment, I would jump on that.

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At what point did it become real that you could make a career in filmmaking in whatever capacity?

Very recently. Blue Ruin was a turning point because it got into a bunch of really great festivals and generated a bunch of attention, but even after that, I was in deep debt for a year or two. But what ended up happening… I’d been writing scripts for the 20 years leading up to that, so I had a whole bunch of shit sitting in my drawers. …Uh, my desk drawers, that is. And then by meeting people in the festivals and stuff like that, people became aware that I also had some writing stuff to show and that got me out in the world and started generating work for me there. But that’s within the last three years.

Is there a scene that you’re involved in?

Different things, like some stuff just acted as a writing sample, which got me hired to be a staff writer on some TV projects. I also wrote my own pilot and was able to get it in front of people so they could consider it. I did an adaptation of a book that, actually, Jeremy’s in pre-production for right now in Canada — so that’s going to be his next movie. So I just try and keep working on stuff and if one thing doesn’t happen right then, then I’ll just put it aside.

Were you ever doing non-film stuff on the side to pay the bills?

Yeah. I guess it was vaguely film-related, but I was a video librarian at an ad agency in New York, which is… They just had a library of old TV commercials that I was sort of in charge of. This was at Ogilvy and Mather. But it was cool because it was this little windowless room that people weren’t really aware of what I did and I could kind of disappear for weeks at a time and go work on low-budget movies and not get paid for them, but still be able to come back have this little freelance job where I would watch Hamburger Helper commercials for eight hours a day.

Are you living in L.A. now?

I live in Austin now. I was in Brooklyn for a very long time and then we had a kid and it was — we just couldn’t — the apartment was too small, it was too expensive, so we moved to Austin. Got a bunch of pearl snap shirts and started cooking burgers in the backyard. In fact, the day I did the Frotcast the first time, that’s the day I moved to Austin.

Do you feel like you’re part of the Austin scene now? Seems like there’s a fairly tight-knit film scene in Austin.

There is and I’m trying to be more so. I’m naturally a little bit of a hermit, so that’s one strike against me, and also I’ve just been kind of preoccupied with some jobs since I’ve been down here. Writing the script for Jeremy, some of this TV work and then a lot of travel. I was out of town for a long time working on Green Room and a couple of other things. So I’ve not been as involved as maybe I would like. But hopefully that will change.

It seems like you and Jeremy are in this spot where you’re very well-known among people at festivals and people that are really into the film scene, you’re really well-known…

But beyond that, it’s like…

…Not so much. Do you want to be? Do you want to be well-known outside of the festival world or would that be more trouble than it’s worth?

It might be more trouble than it’s worth. Honestly, if I could do a thing like this once a year, and exist at that level, I would love that. We had so much fun working on it. I get to work with these actors that I have loved for so long. Being way up in the stratosphere is not the endgame for me. If I can not have to worry about the bills and be able to support my family and do stuff that’s fun, even if they’re really small and only just people that are in the bubble know about it, I’m totally okay with that.